Joe Maneely, Atlas of Versatility

« The cemeteries are full of irreplaceable people who were all replaced. » — Georges Clemenceau

Commercially and creatively, the 1950s held some of the best and the worst years for the American comic book industry. Basically, the first half was a glut and the second, a massacre. This is all well-trod ground. Today, we’ll stick to one artist and his main employer.

In his one intensely-prolific decade as a professional cartoonist, Joe Maneely (1926 – 1958) produced the overwhelming bulk of his work for publisher Abe ‘Martin’ Goodman’s Timely/Atlas, which would become Marvel Comics by the decade’s end.

The artist at his table. Herb Trimpe lets us in on the secret of Maneely’s prodigious speed (said to produce up to six pages a day, pencils and inks): « his pencils [were] almost nonexistent; they were like rough, lightly done layouts with no features on the faces … It was just like ovals and sticks and stuff, and he inked from that. He drew when he inked. That’s when he did the work, in the inking! ». Talk about unerring confidence!

Atlas historian Dr. Michael J. Vassallo sums up the Tao of Goodman (and, by and large, Marvel’s):

« As one genre faded, another would add titles to compensate. It didn’t matter if the new titles were basically redundant titles with new names. Goodman followed all trends in the comic book industry and the publishing industry in general.

A savvy businessman, he rarely led, mostly followed, but had the resources to follow with gusto, overwhelming competitors with product. »

As Ger Apeldoorn tells it, Maneely was a mere thirty-two years of age and at his frenetic artistic peak when tragedy struck:

« … on June 7, 1958, after going out for the night (with old-time friends John Severin and Walt Kelly assistant George Ward) he stepped out on the balcony of the train to get some air, fell between two trains and died. For a long time the story was that he had been drunk, but according to Dan Goldberg* he had lost his glasses earlier that week and that may have been a contributing factor. »

If the inspiring story of Joe Maneely, and its heartbreaking and sudden end is at all remembered these days, it has chiefly been through the diligent efforts of aficionado-historians such as Jim Vadeboncœur Jr. and the aforementioned Dr. Vassallo. Now why would an artist of such calibre fade so swiftly from memory? Since that happens all of the time (what one might term ‘invisible evidence‘), let’s move past the realm of the rhetorical and be more… specific. But first, some samples of the late Mr. Maneely’s goodies.

This is Outlaw Fighters no. 2 (Oct. 1954, Atlas).
This is Jungle Action no. 1 (Oct. 1954, Atlas). With spandex yet to hit the market (and even then), Leopard Girl’s costume must have been quite… stifling.
This is Mystery Tales no. 23 (Nov. 1954, Atlas).
This is Two-Gun Kid no. 18 (Nov. 1954, Atlas). I doubt anyone’s going to land comfortably. Particularly those poor horses.
This is Journey Into Mystery no. 22 (Feb. 1955, Atlas).
Oh, Stan — you’re so butch!” This is Rugged Action no. 2 (Feb. 1955, Atlas). To my eye, the bottom panel evokes Harvey Kurtzman‘s early style (think Two-Fisted Tales at EC); ironic, given that Maneely was as confident and speedy in his drawing as Kurtzman was painstaking and slow.
This is Apache Kid no. 15 (Aug. 1955, Atlas). The publisher also had in its roster Arizona Kid, Kid Colt, The Kid from Dodge City, The Kid from Texas, Kid Slade, The Outlaw Kid, Rawhide Kid, Ringo Kid, Texas Kid, Two-Gun Kid, The Gun-Barrel Kid… did someone say ‘redundant’? Why, yes, someone did.
This is Police Badge #479 no. 5 — the sole issue, really; its numbering picked up from Spy Thrillers… and went no further (Sept. 1955, Atlas). Maneely was another of that rare breed who could draw anything… because they enjoyed drawing everything. Dig all that well-observed detail!
Atlas published, in quick succession, no less that four short-lived Mad clones: Crazy, Riot, Snafu and Wild, each lasting from three to seven issues. None were particularly funny either, even if they did look quite good. This is Riot no.4 (Feb. 1956, Atlas) featuring what is termed, in comic book circles, an ‘infinity’ cover.
This is Melvin the Monster no. 4 (Feb. 1957, Atlas); Dr. Vassallo writes, in his in-depth Maneely overview for Alter Ego magazine (no. 28, Sept. 2003): « Stan Lee and Joe Maneely’s Melvin the Monster… duplicated everything they could about Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace — art style, comic strip format, even upper-&-lower-case lettering style — everything except the warmth and innocence.»
This is Kid Colt Outlaw no. 69 (Feb. 1957, Atlas). Along with everything else, I love his way with flora and fauna. Incidentally, most of these covers were coloured by Stan Goldberg.

And so… why have Maneely’s star and memory dimmed so? It has been proposed, and I agree, that it’s because he just didn’t draw superheroes (a couple of Sub-Mariner covers being the lone exceptions), and Marvel itself hardly lifted a finger, over the years, to preserve the reputation of one of its principal architects.

The artist’s promotional letterhead illustration, circa 1948.

There’s been much idle speculation as to what course comics history would have taken had Maneely lived. Stan Lee wrote, in his usual disingenuous way, that:

« How I wish the world (and I) could have seen what he’d have done with the F.F., Spidey, Thor and all the other Marvel super-heroes! It’s a true tragedy that we’ll never have the chance. »

Let’s be honest here: Maneely was an incredible artist, and he made Stan look good, but Joe wasn’t a writer, and certainly not a world-builder in the fashion and class of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, John Stanley, Basil Wolverton… and precious few others. Without Kirby, the so-called Marvel Age never would have come to pass. Not to mention that Maneely, with a wife and three daughters to feed and support, had just begun to work for one of DC’s friendliest editors, Murray Boltinoff**. He would have been unlikely to drop a better-paying, likely secure gig to drop everything and return to Marvel’s uncertain prospects. Ah, and I see Mark Evanier views it along the same lines.

Oh, and I’ve mentioned in the past Maneely’s likely influence (mostly in the inks) on his contemporary Rocco Mastroserio. Take a look at this gallery of his covers and see if you agree.


*Stan Goldberg, actually.

**as a matter of fact my first encounter, as a child, with Maneely’s work was through a reprint of one of his DC stories: The Doomsday Drum (House of Secrets no. 9, March-April 1958).

8 thoughts on “Joe Maneely, Atlas of Versatility

  1. Matt Brunson May 27, 2021 / 12:37

    Wow, talk about a blast from the past. As a youngster, I always enjoyed the adventures of The Rawhide Kid, Two-Gun Kid, and Kid Colt. And wasn’t there also a cowboy with the incredibly heroic name of Matt? (Matt Slade, if I recall.)


    • gasp65 May 29, 2021 / 19:32

      Ah, yes — back in those days when what we got to read (at least in my experiences) depended upon the vagaries of regional distribution (and I truly lived in the boonies, comics-wise), hand-me-downs and garage sales. I presume you encountered the various Kids through reprint anthologies such as ‘The Mighty Marvel Western’. Poor Matt Slade, though: he became ‘Kid Slade’ after a mere four issues. Marvel’s obsession with Kid is up (or ‘out’) there with DC’s purple gorillas: mysteries for the ages. But don’t worry, between Slade, Matt Dillon and Matt “Steiny” Steinmueller, there was no shortage of gunslinging Matts.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Krackles September 27, 2021 / 17:56

    Maneely was a great artist but this praise of Stan Lee is also another slap in the face of Kirby and that is as ludicrous as his claim to be the sole creator of Kirby’s characters.


    • gasp65 September 27, 2021 / 18:15

      Yeah, that’s certainly the way I interpreted it.


      • Krackles September 27, 2021 / 18:22

        And also another slap in the face of Ditko for good measure (I hadn’t noticed Spidey)…


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